Just in time for Christmas, a federal judge has ordered MGA Entertainment to stop production and sales of Bratz. It’s a major victory for Mattel and Barbie–a jury had found in favor of Mattel’s claim of copyright infringement, but it was not clear whether this finding applied only to the original Bratz dolls or to the entire line.
This case is relevant to the comics world for several reasons, even if you don’t count Barbie’s multiple marriages to GI Joe and Mego Batman.
At the very least, the Bratz ruling illustrates what’s at risk for a company that builds its brand on a derivative work from someone else’s copyrighted images. Consider the recent discovery that an early Emily the Strange drawing was a clear copy of a character from a children’s book, from the character’s appearance to her cats to the identifying description as “strange.” This could arguably be the smoking gun in a copyright infringement lawsuit–while subsequent images may not have copied the book in such a blatant way, core similarities still remain.
However, there’s an even more direct connection. The judge in Bratz case, the Hon. Stephen G. Larson, is also presiding over the Siegel heirs’ Superman and Superboy lawsuits. Judge Larson’s reasoning in the Bratz ruling may provide clues as to how he will see the relationship between the Superman material in Action Comics #1 and subsequent works. Moreover, the Bratz case also involved the use of Mattel’s copyrighted material in the Bratz trademarks. Although the specific legal issues aren’t exactly the same, it’s possible to infer from the judge’s reasoning that he might be favorably inclined toward the Siegels’ argument that their copyright interest gives them a share of the trademarked Superman “S” symbol.
That said, the Bratz ruling also highlights what I’ve previously referred to as the Achilles’ heel of the March 2008 ruling that awarded the Siegels half of the copyright in the Superman material in Action #1–namely, the similarity between Action #1 and the cover images that appeared in promotional house ads. Due to a technicality, the Siegels’ claim did not extend back to these house ads, but Judge Larson determined the only thing that these ads gave DC was ownership of “the image of a person with extraordinary strength who wears a black and white leotard and cape.” Nonetheless, it’s conceivable–though by no means certain–that a panel of judges hearing the case on appeal might find the similarity to be more substantial.
Of course, this is all speculative reading of judicial tea-leaves–the Superman case and Emily the Strange have their own distinct facts and legal issues. The one thing that is certain: if the MGA injunction is not struck down on appeal or settled out, Bratz must be destroyed.